Today’s Advent reading from Isaiah confirms that we need to let children be leaders in the church – or does it?
This phrase from the book of Isaiah is often quoted out of context as a proof text to encourage us to involve children in leadership. But as D. A. Carson said, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” and this demonstrates that principle – it ignores the context of the verse. The whole verse reads,
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6 NIV)
So the verse is about a child leading animals, nothing to do with leading people let alone the church! The wider context is a prophecy of the coming kingdom under the reign of the Messiah, Jesus. Hence why we read it during Advent as we await the birth of Jesus. It’s a vision of a ruler anointed by the Holy Spirit, ruling with justice, righteousness and faithfulness and peace will prevail. The sign of that peace will be that animals will live in peace, instead of devouring one another and those that are most vulnerable, like children. Instead the child will play and even lead these animals.
It is this wider context though that may allow us to argue for understanding this verse as an argument for the leadership of children in our churches.
First the imagery reminds us of the Garden of Eden, that first paradise, the first image we have of the kingdom of God. In the garden there was no harm or destruction, no killing, enmity or strife but animals and humans were created to live in harmony under the leadership and authority of Adam and Eve. And of course Adam and Eve were children, leading and playing with the animals.
Of course? Well that’s if you take the view of Irenaeus, one of the founding fathers and theologians of the early church (c. 125-202AD, Bishop of Lyons). Irenaeus stated that Adam and Eve were young and child-like, that they needed to grow in wisdom and maturity. The important thing is that they and we, are all expected to grow up, there is an order to creation of development as we grow older. We are all becoming, journeying and learning as we go. Jesus came as a baby – maybe to emphasis the point – as for Adam so too for the second Adam. We note that Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and Man’ (Luke 2:52). Our calling is to grow up, to become more like Jesus and so more truly reflect the image of God imprinted on us.
So while we live in the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God, we recognise that children are vulnerable and not fully mature but the future kingdom is one of shalom; where children are safe from harm and where they will lead those who offer most threat. If the Garden of Eden was entrusted to children and Isaiah’s prophecy recapitulates that vision, then surely we can say that the coming kingdom of God involves children leading as well as adults. The wider context of scripture therefore allows us to read this verse not as a proof-text but as a call to enable children and young people to take their rightful place in our church communities that seek to demonstrate the coming kingdom. Here they can be leaders and learners alongside those of us who may be older but are also learning and becoming.